Burlsworth makes laughter stop quickly

RON HIGGINS
Scripps Howard News Service
Published Wednesday, December 30, 1998

The giggles happen immediately, as soon as Arkansas senior right guard Brandon Burlsworth trots to the line of scrimmage.

He settles into his stance, and peers at his opponents through old-timey black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses.

Imagine comedian Drew Carey in a three-point stance.

''Auburn laughed a lot at me, so did Ole Miss,'' Burlsworth said. ''I heard a lot of 'Hey, Drew Carey,' or 'Hey, Clark Kent.' They don't keep laughing for very long.''

That's because trying to get past Burlsworth is no laughing matter. On Team Cinderella, an Arkansas squad that went from 4-7 to 9-2 and a Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl date against Michigan, Burlsworth is the ultimate fairy tale.

He came to Arkansas as a pudgy 6-foot-2, 305-pound walkon. He will leave as a beefy 6-3, 301-pound All-American, someone who simply made himself a football player through hours in the weight room.

Any one of the Hogs' four senior linemen -- Burlsworth, center Grant Garrett, guard Russ Brown or tackle Chad Abernathy -- is deserving of the spotlight. But poll the linemen who's improved the most, and Burlsworth is the winner.

''He's deserved any honors he's gotten because he's put in the work,'' Garrett said. ''Some of us have lives out of football. Me and Russ like to hunt and fish. Brandon likes to lift weights.''

Perhaps it comes from never forgetting his roots, that he was a walk-on who had only Division I-AA and Division II offers after being an all-state player at Harrison.

''I never worried about being a walk-on because I knew in my freshman year that I'd get a scholarship,'' said Burlsworth, who has averaged grading 90 percent this season and figures to be chosen in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. ''I learned so much as a freshman. I owe everything to (former Hogs' assistant) Mike Bender. He taught me basically everything I know.''

The first thing Burlsworth knew is that he had to change his body composition. He dropped almost 50 pounds, dipping to 254. Then, in a proper weight training and diet program for the first time in his life, he slowly added muscle.

Starting from nothing, building a foundation and expanding has always been Burlsworth's game plan. In high school, he began his career as a 165-pound weakling who was more of a practice dummy as a player. He didn't start full-time until his senior year. He learned by watching older players and working.

If that sounds simple, it is.

It fits Burlsworth's personality. He's a man of routine, whether it's walking the same route to the cafeteria or the athletic field house every day, or sitting on the same training room table to get his ankle taped day after day.

His teammates marvel at his concentration, particularly his self-induced game-day trance of which Garrett said earlier this year, ''The (team) bus could blow up and he'll walk out on fire towards where the ball is.''

His reluctance to change any routine -- ''If something is working, why mess with it?'' he said -- is why getting glasses before this season was such a big deal. After all, it was something new.

''Brandon tells us he's got something new to show us, and says he will if we promise not to laugh,'' Brown recalled of Burlsworth revealing his specs. ''He puts them on and we can't stop laughing. I found out later Dean Weber (the Arkansas trainer) gave Brandon a catalog to pick out any type of glasses he wanted. He picked out the ugliest and cheapest frames. That's Brandon.''

Burlsworth didn't know his glasses would be his trademark. He didn't want to wear contacts when he played because he'd heard contacts burned the eyes sometimes while playing.

''I got glasses because they are easy to take on and off,'' Burlsworth said. ''I didn't want anything flashy.''

Suddenly, his look caught on.

In a recent issue of Hawgs Illustrated, there was a picture of 3-year old Zane Wilson of Smackover, Ark., whose Halloween costume included an Arkansas jersey, black-framed glasses a la Burlsworth and eye black. Also at a Hogs' practice one day, quarterback Clint Stoerner showed up in a huddle wearing an extra pair of Burlsworth's glasses.

''I just wanted a basic pair of glasses,'' Burlsworth said. ''I guess the rest is history.''

(Ron Higgins writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.)




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